The Island of Misima lies 200 kilometers off the far eastern coastline of mainland Papua New Guinea. Over two hundred thousand people inhabit the Island and live together in small villages along the coastlines.
Isolated and remote a one-way plane ticket to the Island from Port Moresby or the provincial capital, Alotau, costs nearly one thousand kina… and most of the people can’t afford that. They prefer the sea route as it cost less although it takes longer. It takes about a day by boat to travel to Alotau. But during bad weather, it may take more than two days. Because of the distance between Alotau and Misima, freight cost is the main expense for storeowners. Store goods are sold at twice the normal price of goods sold in shops in Alotau or Port Moresby. All this represents the isolation and remoteness of the Island.
Subsistence farming and fishing is highly valued on the Island as an income source for the people. In the late 1980’s, little did the Misima people know, that their lives would be changed completely after a proposed gold mining operation was to be carried out on the tiny Island. In 1989, Placer Dome Pacific, a Canadian mining company landed with their heavy machines on the shore of Misima. And between 1989 and 1990, the mine began its operations… and the first ore were extracted.
Stanley Negru, a local village leader recalls the start of the mine: When the mine came…benefits also came with it. Living standard improved, and the once subsistence gardening and fishing life of the people were replaced by a consumer economy. The people then rely on the royalties and other benefits that the mine brought about.
The people have access to relatively good health care facilities, education for their children and other basic services. Employment opportunities increased and almost every household has a steady flow of income. As any other landowner group in Papua New Guinea would want, the benefits of the mine has been the center of the agreement,between landowners and the mining companies and the government. And the coming of the mine appears to solve most of their problems, both socially and economically.
But after the mine was closed in 2004, most of the basic services saw a gradual decline. Basic infrastructures, provided by both, the mine and the PNG government have dropped significantly. And concerns over destruction and pollution to the natural environment eventually became evident.
Where used to be the main wharf used by the mine and big ships came to load several thousand tons of ore that were extracted from the mine. Today, what are left from it are pieces of rusted metals protruding from the sea. We were taken further up into the hinterlands of the Island to the goldmine site. The Misima people, to some extent are still depending on some of the infrastructures left behind by the mine… most of them have already deteriorated.
On the other end of the Island, the only big health facility is struggling to cater to the people’s health needs. The Misima District Hospital might seem OK on the outside… but in the inside, it has a backlog of problems to deal with. The infant mortality statistics provided by the hospital is just as bad as any other rural health centers in the country.
A combination of an inconsistent supply of medicines and frequent power outages on the island drives up a steady increase of infant deaths every month. The midwife at the hospital, Helen Taukuru says they get more than 5 pregnant women every week. She says, on numerous occasions, female nurses at the hospital had to deliver pregnant women under touch lights that were bought from trade stores.
Three babies die at hospital every month. That might not seemed as a big number of babies dying, but at the end of each year, the hospital records 36 infant deaths. That’s roughly the number of babies that were born alive every week at Angau Hospital in Lae or the Port Moresby General Hospital.
The hospital is also having problems with its staff. The acting District Health officer John Metuselo says, they have been having difficulty recruiting new nursing staff to the hospital. Because of the shortage of staffs in the hospital, and the frequent shortage of medical equipment, the hospital was reduced to a health center.
Enoch Kawakusi, the Louside local level government acting area manager admitted that, there are little, otherwise no provincial government input in this part of the province.
When the mining activities ended, the way of live on the island returned back to normal. A combination of the distance between Misima and Alotau, and the limited government funding, maintaining the standards of the infrastructures on the Island haven’t been successful.
After the closure of the Misima gold mine in 2004, the problem faced by the people began to grow. Socio-economic standards of the people have dropped significantly. And most of their lifestyles have returned to the way it used to be twenty years ago before the mine came. The economy on the island has been kept alive by local alluvial mining… and subsistence farming and fishing practices were revived. But the Misima people are resilient. They know the government wouldn’t come… not sooner.
They had to be self-reliant… We visited a section of more than two hectares of cocoa trees owned by the Boiyo villagers, along the northern coast of Misima Island.
The Boiyo people are now trying to put back together how their lives used to be 20 years ago. Before the mine came, the Boiyo people were one of the biggest producers of cocoa, in the Milne Bay province.
But when the mine came, the Boiyo people shifted to rely on the benefits that the mine was providing. And cocoa farming eventually came to a halt.
But they are facing a much bigger problem than before…. The arrival of the cocoa pod borer slowly crept through this part of Misima,and destroyed almost all the cocoa trees. Michael Sakiasi is a DPI officer. He is leading the village group to rebuild the cocoa industry in this part of MIsima. These youths knew if they don’t work together with their community to replant healthy cocoa trees, then neither them nor their children will have nothing to sustain their lives in the years to come.
Like the Boiyo people, it gives a tiny snapshot of the challenges the Misima people are facing after the closure of the mine. The people say, benefits promised by the national government and the mining company was never given. Over the last two decades, Misima Island was featured prominently in government discussions, as one of the major drivers of PNG’s economy.
The mine came into operation to supplement Papua New Guinea’s economy as it faced a threat of collapsing, following the then Bougainville crisis. But the Misima people say, the government and the mining company had exploited them, and landowners are left with big challenges. They have been struggling to convince the national government to honor their commitment they made 20 years ago. The landowners have also been fighting a 20-year-old court battle that is still far from over.
They say, they will continue to fight the case until they get what is rightfully theirs. But along these coastlines… there are many more people whoa suffering. Their stories, still untold. The people say,the remnants from the mine will remind the upcoming generations of Misima… that there was once a mine on their Island… a mine that left them little, otherwise, nothing to benefit from.